Unpacking Racism: Practical Steps to Fight Racism



This article is part of a series of posts based on the 2020 Laity Convocation of the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church.  Go to the Lead Post in this series for a complete list of articles.  Below is an answer to one of the audience’s questions: What steps can individuals and churches take now?




There’s nothing new or special about this list of practical steps to fight racism.  The suggestions fall into four categories, all of them important.  I’ve often heard people say we must get beyond learning about food and customs, my third category, but it also has an  important part to play, often providing a starting point more people are willing to try. What’s crucial is starting somewhere, eventually engaging all four kinds of steps, and, most important and difficult, sustaining those steps over years.  One-off actions certainly don’t cut deeply enough, but neither do actions lasting just a year or two.

At the Laity Convocation I said that in 40 to 100 years, IF we’re diligent, we might start to lessen racism in the U.S.  One panelist thought I was being too optimistic.  I was.

But hopeful things are afoot in the United Methodist Church.  It’s had a Commission on Religion and Race for years, but within the last year a Taskforce on Racism has formed, and a larger Anti-Racism Champion Team attached to that Taskforce, to more pointedly begin to help dismantle racism in churches and society. It will do much to help us study and train and put that new knowledge into action. Wish us luck, but even more, wisdom and sustaining grit.  AS A FIRST STEP, you could look for assessment tools to come from the Taskforce shortly and consider using them at your church.

A word on tone.  Racism has hurt more people than it’s possible to count, and this includes—though not as directly and viciously—those who have perpetrated racism on others, consciously or not.  Yet I’ve kept the tone here relatively light. The mountain we have to climb is so big I figured it would be better not to start by weighing us down.  There’s much deep, soul searching work to be done, and the next 40 years may be presenting us with a window of opportunity as big as the Civil Rights Movement did from the early 50′s to the early 80′s.  More about this later.  Hopefully, this list of steps may lead to the deeper issues we’ll need to face.

Finally, each category has its own area it seeks to increase—that is, respectively: knowledge, social change, cultural competence, and personal relationships—but each category should also be seen as contributing to a greater ability to talk about race.  One reason we’d rather talk about anything but race is simply that we don’t know how to talk about it very well.  Race sparks more feelings of anger, defensiveness, guilt, shame, helplessness and hopelessness than just about anything; and such feelings make it hard to  talk honestly and think constructively. Approach each category below with a view both to confront these feelings and get past them.

LessenRacism1) Study.  Lots of books to read, videos to watch, articles to examine, training sessions to attend. Today it’s become popular to be trained about our implicit biases, for example, and Peggy McIntosh’s classic “Invisible Knapsack” essay shows how racism pervades our everyday life, even in ways we think are simple and harmless.  Speaking for myself, I’d say the deepest place to start is the work of James Baldwin, who wrote and spoke about race more deeply and passionately than anyone I know.  I’d start with Notes of A Native Son, but lots of great material from many others has come to us at an increasing pace for decades.  More details in a later post.

2) Social Change.  Support an organization fighting racism and its effects, and, if possible, be involved beyond just contributing money.  The chances for that would be greater if the organization were local, though the national ones sometimes offer opportunities for local involvement as well.  For example, readers of this site know about Emmanuel House, founded by my oldest son, Rick, and his wife Desiree as a living memorial to his youngest brother Bryan Emmanuel Guzman.  In 2016 it was named one of “The Top 100 Most Innovative” social change organizations in the world, and in 2018 merged with long-time partner The Joseph Corporation to become The Neighbor Project.  The focus of these organizations is to build financial and community stability through home ownership.  The short video “The Racial Wealth Gap” (the very first episode in the Netflix series Explained) spends significant time on how racism was sustained through restricting who and where people could own homes, and how home ownership contributes significantly to reducing poverty and the racial wealth gap.  Get involved in organizations like Emmanuel House, or start a program at your church, like workshops for those working towards American citizenship, or—since voting matters—voting registration drives.  It follows that making voting fair and truly representative is a next step. There are systemic problems with this, including disenfranchising people of color and drawing unfair voting districts to assure that people in power stay in power.  And it hardly needs saying, as I’m adding to this post just days after George Floyd’s murder, that becoming involved in police reform is of crucial importance.  The list of social, political, and mental systems keeping racism alive is long, and rooting them out takes years, decades, of persistent work.

3) Cultural Events. Intentionally go to events, restaurants, music venues, places of worship, and more, which put you in environments different from yours.  My church had a program called Cultural Crossings, which we’ve talked about reviving.  It did all-church programs on Cooking Ethnic, on different Christmas Traditions, and, the one I remember most, on Coming to America, where members from Ghana, the Philippines, Sweden, and more, shared their (or their ancestors’) journeys to this country and their reactions upon getting here.  Attendance was always good, but especially packed for this program.  Hearing stories is tremendously important, and maybe even more so for the next category.

4) Friendship Get to be as close a friend as possible with someone of a different race or ethnicity. Deborah Plummer’s Racing Across the Lines: Changing Race Relations Through Friendship would be a good guide and another book to study deeply.  (Read my review at the link here, and note her response to it.  It contains two important lists—one for whites, one for people of color—which, she says, could lead to the “interracial marriage of Americans.”)  Even at my church, one of the most multicultural in America, we could do a much better job getting to know each other better across racial and ethnic lines.  I’ve spoken with our pastor and another church leader about maybe starting a program of “Diversity Dinners,” where our members could simply get to know each other better.  Plummer says lack of cross-racial friendships is one of the biggest things keeping racism in place.  But creating these naturally is difficult.  You can’t force real friendship, but if you happen to know of one across racial lines, it would be good to “study” it. Ask those friends how it happened, then try to replicate, as naturally as possible, similar circumstances where inter-racial friendships can happen.

You can do these actions by yourself or organize a group, and, indeed, each action would go further if it were done in groups.  So (1) Study could be done as a class, or book club, or even a conference hosted by your church.  One thing could grow out of another, too.  For example, we know of a family who signed up to help a refugee family who just happened to be living at Bryan House, Emmanuel House’s very first house.  Their social change action ended in a deep friendship.  Go HERE for a video and article that tell this inspiring story.

I’ve spoken a few times about race and ethnicity.  “Ethnicity” often applies mostly to whites, but for years I’ve thought the new frontier in race studies needs to be about white ethnicities.  Another reason racism remains so alive is that whites have largely lost contact with their ethnic heritage, and thus with the struggles their ancestors had to go through to become “white.”  For “whiteness” doesn’t just refer to skin color: it refers even more to power.  The title of Noel Ignatiev’s important book says it all: How the Irish Became White. Yet another book to study deeply.

  Go to the Teaching Diversity main page.

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Unpacking Racism: What Is “White Privilege” – Part 1



This article is part of a series of posts based on the 2020 Laity Convocation of the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church.  Go to the Lead Post in this series for a complete list of articles.  Below is PART 1 of Rebecca Fraley’s talk on the meaning of White Privilege.
Read Part 2 of her comments.



On the Teaching Diversity main page of this site, I write what I’ve often written and said for decades: “Race relations would improve 100% over night,” if people of color felt that whites truly acknowledged their “privilege.”  Yet acknowledging this is one of the hardest things to do.

There are many reasons acknowledging privilege is difficult, and at the 2020 Laity Convocation of the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church, panelist REBECCA FRALEY (see bio below) took on the question, What is white privilege and how does it impact the institutions and systems of the United States?  Her very helpful thoughts are below, especially that…

We don’t actually agree or understand about what “White Privilege” means.


“White privilege is a term used to describe a concept that suggests that white people are privileged over people of other races and cultures.  The word ‘white’ can be uncomfortable for those who are not used to being defined or described by their race.  And the word ‘privilege’—especially for poor and rural white people—sounds like a word that doesn’t fit their circumstances and suggests they have never struggled.

WhtPriv2“White privilege is NOT a suggestion that white people never struggled; many do not enjoy the privileges that come with ‘relative affluence’ such as food security.  And many don’t experience the privileges that come with ‘access’ such as nearby health care.  And white privilege is NOT the assumption that everything a white person has accomplished is ‘unearned.’  Most white people who have reached a high level of success had to work hard and make sacrifices to get there.  It should then be viewed as ‘a built-in advantage, separate from one’s level of income or effort.’

“Francis Kendall, author of Diversity in the Classroom and Understanding White Privilege: Creating Pathways to Authentic Relationships Across Race, defines white privilege as ‘having greater access to power and resources than people of color (in the same situation) do.’

“Education researcher Jacob Bennett tracked the history of the term and found that:

—Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, “white privilege” was less commonly used but generally referred to legal and systemic advantages given to white people in the United States (i.e., citizenship, the right to vote, the right to buy a house in the neighborhood of their choice).

—In 1988, after several years of persistent discrimination, Peggy McIntosh published a groundbreaking essay titled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Many people began to view white privilege as being more psychological, a subconscious prejudice perpetuated by white people’s lack of awareness that they held this power.

—Some people of color continued to insist that an element of white privilege included the after-affects of conscious choices.  For example, if white business owners didn’t hire many people of color, then white people had more economic opportunities.  Legislative bodies, corporate leaders, and educators are still disproportionately white and often make conscious choices that keep this cycle going.

“‘The more complicated truth: White privilege is both unconsciously enjoyed and consciously perpetuated.  It is both on the surface and deeply embedded into American life.’”

—End of Part 1, Read Part 2



The front page of the Northern Illinois Conference Reporter, reporting on the Convocation.  Rebecca Fraley and I are pictured as panel members.

REBECCA L. FRALEY is a lifelong member of Steward UMC in the DeKalb District.

She currently serves as Chair of the Administrative/Church Council, Recording Secretary of the Committee on Lay Leadership, member of the Good Neighbor Fund Committee, and UMW member.  She also represents Steward UMC at the Neighbors in Christ Ecumenical Center in Lee County as the Chair of the Board of Directors and volunteers at the Center on Saturdays when clients are there.  Rebecca has a Masters Degree in Sociology, along with a Graduate Certificate in Gerontology, from Northern Illinois University.  She taught “Intro to Sociology” and “Social Gerontology” as an adjunct at Kishwaukee College.  Recently “retired” from Lutheran Social Services of Illinois as the Social Service Coordinator at Lincoln Manor Senior Housing in Rochelle, she enjoys semi-retirement by working part-time at Family Service Agency in DeKalb as the Senior Connections Program Specialist.  She and husband Clay live in rural Kings with their two dogs, Althea and Buddy, and enjoy gardening and spending time with their kids and grandkids.

  Go to the Teaching Diversity main page on this site.  There’s a link there (and here) to my Sermon “Pentecost Means No Supremacies,” which directly addresses White Supremacy, the underpinning of White Privilege.  However, be sure to read the post accompanying this sermon, where I “correct” and add to it.

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Unpacking Racism: What Is “White Privilege” – Part 2



This article is part of a series of posts based on the 2020 Laity Convocation of the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church.  Go to the Lead Post in this series for a complete list of articles.  Below is PART 2 of Rebecca Fraley‘s talk on the meaning of White Privilege.
Read Part 1 of her comments.



Part 2 of Rebecca Fraley’s talk explores several aspects of White Privilege, the first two below based largely on Peggy McIntosh’s famous essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”


“As Peggy McIntosh asked herself, inspiring her famous essay: ‘On a daily basis, what do I have that I didn’t earn?’ We need to ask ourselves ‘Who built that system?’ and ‘Who keeps it going?’

White Privilege as the “Power of Normal”
“Some subtle versions of white privilege can be used as a comfortable starting for people to begin the discussion—some simple everyday conveniences/things that white people are not forced to think about:  ‘flesh-colored’ band-aids in your first-aid kit, the ‘hair-care’ aisle versus the smaller separate section of ‘ethnic hair products,’ ‘ethnic foods’ section in large grocery stores.

White Privilege as the “Power of the Benefit of the Doubt”
“The media (print, TV shows, movies, news) show more positive portrayals of white people.  White people are less likely to be followed, interrogated, or searched by law enforcement for ‘looking suspicious.’  If accused of a crime, white people are less likely to be presumed guilty and/or sentenced to death.  Just as people of color did nothing to deserve this unequal treatment, white people did not ‘earn’ disproportionate access to compassion and fairness.  They receive it as the byproduct of systemic racism and bias.

White Privilege as the “Power of Accumulated Power”
“The power of ‘normal’ and ‘benefit of the doubt’ would not exist if systemic racism hadn’t come first.  And systemic racism cannot endure unless those powers still hold sway.  Imagine it as a sort of ‘whiteness water cycle,’ where racism is the rain.  That rain populates the earth, giving some areas more access to life and resources than others.  The evaporation is white privilege, an invisible phenomenon that is both a result of the rain and the reason it keeps going.

“For example, the ability to accumulate wealth has been a long-standing white privilege created by overt systemic racism in both public and private sectors.  Wealth passed from one generation to the next in the form of inherited property, college educations, increased earning power.  The cycle continues…

WhtPriv1b“Post WWII, the GI Bill provided white veterans with a ‘magic carpet ride to the middle class.’  Racist zoning laws segregated towns and cities, redlining by the Federal Housing Administration built discrimination right into building codes, resulting in people of color being denied opportunities to raise their children and invest their money in neighborhoods with high home values.  The cycle continues…

“So although it is not necessarily a privilege to be white, it certainly has its benefits.  White people can generally count on police protection rather than harassment.  Depending on their financial situation, white people can choose where they want to live and choose safer neighborhoods with better schools.  White people are given more attention, respect, and status in conversations.  Nothing white people do is qualified, limited, discredited, or acclaimed simply because of our racial background.  White people don’t have to represent their race and their actions are not judged as a credit to their race or as confirmation of its shortcomings or inferiority.

“‘It’s not that white Americans have not worked hard and built much.  We have.  But we did not start out from scratch.  Much of the rhetoric against more active policies for racial justice stem from the misconception that all people are given equal opportunities and start from a level playing field…’ (Source: Showing up for Racial Justice)”

Main Sources:  “What is White Privilege, Really? Recognizing white privilege begins with truly understanding the term itself,” Cory Collins, Teaching Tolerance (Issue 60, Fall 2018); “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Peggy McIntosh (1988).


Not acknowledging White Privilege is one of the root reasons racism remains so intractable, long lasting, and deep.  Yet acknowledging this is one of the hardest things to do.  To add a little to Rebecca Fraley’s thoughts, we Americans, for one thing, believe that everyone’s on a level playing field, and that everything we’ve achieved we’ve done basically on our own, with little help.  We’re a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps kind of country (although that move is physically impossible!), and anyone who doesn’t just isn’t trying.  Going further, whites often evade their privilege by charging reverse discrimination.  Because I’ve spent most of my career in colleges, I’ve written that I don’t deny that every now and then a person of color gets in because of their race, but for every one person whom race helps there are at the very least 10,000 persons who, because of racism, never even get a serious chance to apply.  Please also note the following:

  For more on Fraley’s comments on accumulating wealth, watch Season 1: Episode 1 of the Netflix series Explained.  It’s on the “Racial Wealth Gap,” and spends significant time on the importance of HOME OWNERSHIP, the main focus of The Neighbor Project, an organization begun when my oldest son Rick and wife Desiree started Emmanuel House as a living memorial to his youngest brother Bryan Emmanuel Guzman.

  For more on educational inequality go to “A Return to Plessy vs. Ferguson?,” an article based largely on Rick Guzman’s law school monograph on education.  Upon graduation he received the Thurgood Marshall Prize for his contributions to education.

  Go to the Teaching Diversity main page.

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